International carrier NTT DoCoMo announced in late November that its third-generation phones, developed by NEC and Panasonic Mobile Communications, will run the Linux operating system. These new devices join the list of smartphones—including a few by Motorola and Samsung—already on the market. There are also an increasing number of other
handheld form factors running Linux, though the numbers are smaller. Paxton Cooper, director of product marketing at MontaVista Software, predicts even more smartphones to run Linux by the end of 2005.
Those using Linux-based devices now are using “traditional” applications on the devices, including personal information managers, contact managers and browsers, Cooper says. He expects to see that trend continue until early 2006, when he believes developers will start using Linux’s flexibility to develop more customized applications.
Another case for the increasing popularity of Linux in handheld devices is PalmSource’s recent acquisition of China MobileSoft, which offers Linux-based software designed for smartphones and handhelds. Those applications will be released in China early this year, but probably won’t be available in this country until much later in 2005, according to Michael Mace, chief competitive officer for PalmSource.
“Increasingly, the way to sell mobile devices is on what people can do with them,” Mace says, adding that offering a Linux-based system enables PalmSource to build on the applications already available in the Linux developer community.
Additionally, the Linux OS allows users more flexibility than competing systems from Symbian and Microsoft, which opens doors for customization and optimization of applications, according to Mace.
In addition to Motorola, Samsung and NEC, there are a dozen smaller handset manufacturers, all based in China, starting to produce Linux-driven phones, says Bill Weinberg, open source architecture specialist at Open Source Development Labs in Beaverton, Ore.
“As handheld phones become less a traditional telephone and more a networked enterprise device, the Linux OS becomes more advantageous, because it offers superior networking capabilities compared to other operating systems,” explains Weinberg. Another critical factor is that the Linux operating code is much smaller, meaning more space remains for applications.
And smartphones aren’t the only mobile devices using the Linux OS. Hewlett Packard recently unveiled a Linux laptop.
As with smartphones, laptop users want the ability to customize applications in a way that the Microsoft operating system doesn’t provide, says Jeffrey Wade, HP worldwide Linux marketing manager.
Though HP has yet to develop handheld devices operating on Linux, there is a growing popularity for the platform, Wade says, pointing to the company’s development of the handheld.com download portal, which is enjoying increasing use from the Linux community.
Despite the portal’s popularity, the number of handheld (non-phone) devices actually operating on Linux is quite small, according to Wade. HP probably won’t enter that market until the numbers grow significantly, which Wade doesn’t expect to happen for at least a few years.
“We’re still talking about this being an emerging opportunity, and we’re looking at how we can lead in this space,” says Wade.